Automated vehicles are still a futuristic technology.
But Magna, one of the world’s largest automotive suppliers, revealed during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit it’s produced a driverless, last-mile delivery vehicle in use now in suburban Detroit.
The company developed robotic vehicle and put it in service on a pilot basis in March. It has successfully delivered “hundreds of pizzas” in a four-square mile area around the Brooklyn Pizza restaurant in downtown Birmingham, Michigan.
Project with big goal
Matteo Del Sorbo, Magna executive vice president, said the goal of developing the all-electric delivery vehicle is to cut delivery costs and reduce carbon emissions in urban areas.
Del Sorbo, however, said the experiment in suburban Detroit demonstrates Magna’s ability to build and provide what he describes as a “full-stack solution.”
Magna not only possesses the technical skills to develop electric and autonomous vehicles from the ground up, but it also has the manufacturing knowledge to build them and put them into service out on the street, he said.
Magna is showing how it can leverage its expertise in several areas to develop new opportunities in mobility by piloting its last-mile delivery project, he added, and creating a new business model at a time when the auto industry is undergoing sweeping changes.
Delivery customers impressed
“It has a huge future,” Del Sorbo said of the delivery vehicle, noting customer reaction has been very positive.
Muthu Subramanian, the project director for the last-mile vehicle, said the autonomous vehicle was done inside Magna, and underscores the sophistication of the company’s capabilities.
Not only did Magna develop the low-speed autonomous driving system for the purpose-built, light-weight robotic vehicle, it also produced the delivery software as well, Subramanian said.
“Customers love it,” according to Brooklyn Pizza owner Sam Abelfatah. “Customers are very open to new technology.”
In addition, pizzas delivered by the robot arrive warmer than those transported in an insulated box used by delivery drivers.
The automated delivery robot has not had any issues out on the road while navigating busy streets, including Woodward Avenue, the legendary north-south artery through Detroit and suburban Oakland County. It easily manages the traffic, Abelfatah said.
“The biggest problem is with people leaning out of their cars to take pictures of it,” he said.
Since the delivery robot is experimental, a Magna research team based in Troy, Michigan always keeps a camera on the vehicle. In addition, a chase vehicle with a human driver follows the robot on each delivery, Subramanian said.
So far, the Brooklyn Pizza delivery vehicle has operated in relatively benign weather. However, winter is coming, and the vehicle could face some challenges, but Abelfatah said he would not put regular delivery drivers out on snow-covered roads.
Other companies, such as BrightDrop, General Motors’ new electric delivery van subsidiary, are also experimenting with last-mile delivery robots — BrightDrop’s version is called the eCart — so the delivery vehicle space could become crowded.
Federal Express and Amazon are also financing experimental last-mile delivery vehicles.
Del Sorbo said, “The next phase in this pilot program is to apply our learnings to further refine the solution for a broader range of applications and use cases.
“Our expertise lies in the ability to design, engineer and scale at higher volumes,” he said.